College Prep Programs Receive Mixed Grades from School Board

“I thought it was a good, no, make that great, meeting last night,” said Clarke County Schools Superintendent Dr. Michael Murphy.

Last night, Clarke County’s top school administrators, as well as several counselors and teachers gathered for the first of two summit meetings in order to take a closer look at the county’s college preparatory classes known as International Baccalaureate (IB), Advanced Placement (AP) and Bridge, a collaborative program with James Madison University program that offers students direct college course credit.

The meeting was held at the request of the Clarke County School Board.

Clarke County School board members, staff and the public gathered on Monday night at Johnson Williams Middle School on Monday night to discuss the county's Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Bridge programs - Photo Edward Leonard

The two hour marathon session, which was attended by approximately 30 parents, teachers and several school board candidates, was a blend of brainstorming, data analysis and problem identification intended to determine the cause of recent IB and AP student performance concerns and to assess CCPS’s ability to continue supporting the broad course offerings aimed at college bound students. A similar meeting scheduled for next week will look at the school division’s support for vocational student course offerings.

Dr. Murphy, who has come under increasing pressure from School Board member Robina Bouffault (White Post) regarding student performance and his staff’s ability to support the current broad mix of course offerings, opened last night’s session by challenging Bouffault’s assertion of that the solution to poor IB / AP student performance is to overhaul Clarke’s college preparatory approach and jettison many of its programs.

“I’d like to address the ‘perception’ of declining enrollment and declining performance in our IB and AP programs,” Murphy said in his opening remarks. “We have listened to our students and to our community when building our course offering. We have high expectations in Clarke County and that’s what brings us here together tonight. We’ve looked deeply at a lot of data and we have had some incredible ‘ah-ha’s’ from looking at student data.”

Murphy said that Clarke Schools have encouraged students to excel beyond what the student might have thought that they could have achieved for a long time, but over the last couple of years the school system has had to rethink that “celebration.” Murphy said the changes, necessitated by $2.1M in budget cuts over the last three years, have “created a lot of distress both on the way up and on the way down but the educational research is clear.”

“When great things are expected from students, students generally rise toward the expectations,” Murphy said. “Offering programs with high expectations is really important but it is also a balancing game.”

School board member Jennifer Welliver (Berryville) said that she believed that more than half of the parents in Clarke County have an expectation that advanced courses be offered for students.

“I would think that if you surveyed Clarke County parents at least fifty percent expect that their kids are going to college,” said School Board member Jennifer Welliver (Berryville). “Not every kid is going to a four-year college, but if you’re college bound then I think that you need advanced classes.

Prior to last night’s meeting, school board members were provided with the opportunity to submit questions for response by school staff members. Last night, Murphy read each question aloud, school staff then responded with school board members asking follow-up questions.

While school staff may have discovered valuable clues to instructional and program problems in the weeks leading up to last night’s session, school board members and the public likely had their own “ah-ha” moments during last night’s discussion.

One such moment came when CCPS director of curriculum Dr. Lisa Floyd presented a chart detailing local student course grades in comparison to the final IB result score. The course grade does not always correspond to the score returned by IB. In seven cases, Clarke county students earned an “A” grade for the course from a CCHS instructor,   yet an external IB   examiner assigned a “D” for the student’s IB result.

Observing that the local grades didn’t correspond to the international grade assignments Robina Bouffault said, “I think that there appears to be just a smidge of grade inflation here.”

Floyd agreed with Bouffault’s assessment and said that the problem was being addressed.

“We’re looking at grading protocols right now,” Floyd responded. “This is a work-in-progress. We see it, we recognize it and we’re working on it as a team.”

However, Superintendent Murphy added an additional facet to the grade inflation problem.

“It’s part of the circular problem of education. Every teacher wants their students to have good grades,” Murphy said. “And when students get bad grades we get calls from parents.”

Murphy said that a new evaluation system that he described as “standards-based instruction” will be helpful in addressing the issue by better defining the various components of the approach that a teacher uses in the classroom.

“This type of evaluation will help us identify what the learning standards are and what are the consistent processes that we are looking for,” Murphy said.

Another area of concern discussed was the number of teachers receiving the specialized IB and AP training required to teach the advanced courses.

“You will note the decline in the staff development in the number of  teachers  over the past three years,” Bouffault said after the meeting.

In 2009, 17 staff members received IB training and three received AP training. That number dropped to nine IB staff training spots and two AP spots in 2010. Last night CCPS staff said that in 2011 three instructors will receive AP training and only one will take the IB training.

“You need to have more teacher training,” Bouffault remarked.

“We agree,” Murphy responded.

While it was clear that a significant amount of staff time was spent over the several weeks leading up to last night’s question and answer period, which also corresponded with annual back-to-school preparations, school staff and administrators weren’t the only ones doing the presenting.

Bouffault took the opportunity to present her own color-coded master scheduling chart which she said indicates that CCPS teaching staff are being stretched too thinly across too many advanced level courses.

“The reason that I color-coded the master schedule was to make very obvious the many different colors that are in our core curriculum,” Bouffault explained. “What I tried to show is that, given our small size, we have teachers who are wearing about six different hats.”

At least one teacher sitting at the discussion table enthusiastically nodded toward CCHS principal Dr. Jeffrey Jackson when Bouffault alluded to staff members being required to handle so many different levels and types – AP, IB, and Bridge – of instruction.

Perhaps the night’s most unexpected eye-opener for school board members and the audience members resulted from the lack of evaluation data rather than the detailed data that was delivered.

With poor performance by Clarke County students on the IB “extended essay,” a 4,000 word independent research paper required by the IB program, as one of the key issues that precipitated last night’s IB / AP review session, Clarke educators revealed just how little evaluation feedback they have about Clarke County student performance on the extended essay.

CCHS IB Director, Thom Potts said that although the cost to CCPS for requesting the IB grader’s comments for Clarke County student’s extended essays was less than $100, Clarke’s IB staff does not request the tests from the IB program for review. The discussion also indicated staff experience deficiencies in the extended essay supervision component of the curriculum.

Jim Deignan, a CCHS English teacher who  now supervises students as they go through the extended essay process said “I’ve never read any extended essays.” Thom Potts then told school board members that the teacher who had previously supervised the extended essay component of the program last year was no longer with the school division.

Although last night’s discussion focused on advanced courses, the conversation did touch on other topics. During her school performance questioning, Bouffault focused briefly on weak standards of learning (SOL) performance by CCPS students by asking Dr. Murphy what corrective measures are currently in place for teachers with poor SOL results.

“How many teacher performance plans are currently in place given the FY11 SOL results?” Bouffault asked.

“Without asking the building principals specifically I can’t honestly tell you,” Murphy replied.

“We’ll you’ve got one building principal sitting right here,” Bouffault persisted.

Dr. Jackson, Clarke County High School Principal, replied that he was aware of at least one corrective action plan for a teacher at the high school.

“I do know that it is not uncommon to have one or more teachers in every building who are under assistance,” Murphy replied.

With a future work session for vocational education issues planned for September 12, school board members came away with very different opinions from last night’s meeting.

“I think that there are many kids who aren’t taking the IB and AP tests, especially since the school district is no longer paying for the test,” said school board member Janet Alger (Russell). “Because we are looking at such small numbers it could mean that we aren’t getting a good idea of what’s really happening. By continuing to look at the data I think that we’ll get a better understanding of how to best proceed.”

“For now I’m satisfied that we’re moving in the right direction,” Alger added.

School board member Jennifer Welliver (Berryville) expressed similar sentiments about the quality of CCPS’s advanced course offerings.

“I wasn’t aware of the immense amount of data collection that the school administration is doing,” Welliver said.

Welliver characterized last night’s meeting as “very informative” and, in her opinion, CCPS does not have too many advanced course offerings.

“I was very satisfied with the answers that were provided tonight,” Welliver said. “The school staff has identified the program weaknesses and is putting together a plan. We also have a new high school principal who appears to be pulling the staff together and building an effective team.”

School board member Robina Bouffault, however, offered a different assessment.

“It’s not about what you’d like to do, but rather making a determination based on what’s best for our students,” Bouffault said last night. “We can’t continue to do things the same way that we have been. There needs to be some structural changes.”

Bouffault continued; “Back in 2008 this school board issued a position paper that said our two most important goals were student performance and an increase in vocational programs. We have accomplished neither goal to date. Tonight I think that we started to identify the problems but, after the next session is complete, we need to have serious discussions about changing the current structure because it is not working very well.”

Superintendent Mike Murphy said that he was pleased to have discussions about school performance in an open and transparent forum.

“All too often folks only have a part of the picture – and sometimes the picture is, unfortunately, a complicated one,” Murphy said. “There were good questions by the School Board and  super responses by staff.”

Whether the “structural changes” hoped for by Bouffault will ultimately be supported by the school board will likely hinge on the support of school board member Emily Rhodes (Buckmarsh) – who chaired last night’s meeting for school board chair Barbara Lee (Millwood) who was absent due to medical reasons- and Lee.

Although Rhodes has announced that she will not run for re-election – her position appears destined for Beth Leffel in an unopposed election race. Lee has decided to run again, but is also unopposed. Jennifer Welliver is facing an election challenge from Berryville resident, James Brinkmeier.





  1. Nancy Martin says:

    I am so pleased to read this great article. An open discussion about our pressing issues in CCPS education! I hope this conversation continues and becomes a permanent part of our public domain. We all have stakes in the game, whether we are parents of students or not. I applaud and thank all who contributed. Even you, Ms. Bouffault.

  2. “It’s part of the circular problem of education. Every teacher wants their students to have good grades,” Murphy said. “And when students get bad grades we get calls from parents.”

    And what happens after the parent conversation? Is the kid’s grade unfairly inflated? Parents need to be told that their “angels” are not able to do the work or aren’t doing the work to earn a higher grade. All too often anymore a call from a parent results in an “adjusted grade”. If Johnny or Jill can’t or won’t do the work, Johnny or Jill shouldn’t be in the class.

    • To say that a grade is unfairly inflated would imply that there is such a thing as fair grade inflation. Fairness and inflation don’t seem to be compatible descriptors in this discussion.

      In my days as a student each grade carried a simple meaning: A = excellent, B = very good, C = average, D = below average and the warning bells are sounding, F = absence of effort. It seems that many now think that a grade of C indicates failure. Is average unacceptable now? I understand that as a student grows and matures he or she should not accept average performance as the norm, but being average does say that you have a chance and are capable of improving. Has all this changed that much over the years?

      I would think that grading would be a process of assigning worth to a work product. Is that true?

      Finally I don’t think I would want my child to have a teacher who would change a grade just because of a parent phone call. Does this actually happen?

      • Depends who the parent is. But yes, it does happen.

        • Your word is not supported by anecdotal evidence or real stats. I wonder if other posters, particularly working educators, could corroborate this potential bombshell. Has Dr. Murphy ever directly addressed this issue? I think I know the answer, as any evidence of this practice would completely undermine the most important component of the education process, the validity of assessment.

  3. Perhaps this is not anecdotal evidence, but it is observational: having served on numerous scholarship selection committees, I have always been curious about the frequent discrepancy between a student’s classroom grades and SAT scores. It appears that many “stellar” students perform poorly on national assessments – too many to blame test phobia.

    • It would see that this issue is not new.

      Admission Boards Face ‘Grade Inflation’

      I also Googled ‘correlation between high school gpa and SAT scores,’ but I haven’t digested enough of the info to post here … yet.

      • Opps… wrong url. The one posted is among the return from the ‘correlation’ query.

        Once again, Admission Boards Face ‘Grade Inflation’

        • Hi,

          There is no correlation between SAT and college grades. SAT is a critical thinking exam and not a determination of what a student has actually learned on content, therefore its not able to make any predictors.

          The ACT does reliably with validated correlate and predict to college grades because it is a content based test.

          My kids have not taken an SAT…ever. Only the ACT…and applied to college as “test optional” meaning NOT having presented standardized test scores for admission at very competitive colleges. The entire decision was based on a truly holistic approach of grades, rigorous curriculum, extra curricular and community involvement.

          Families can do their own research and take charge of their individual student’s educational path…rather than relying on the school system. Ask questions!

          • I totally agree with your take on the ACT, but I see the predictive aspect of the SAT differently.

            The SAT is all about qualitative and quantitative communication skills, i e. verbal and math. Imho this would be a reliable instrument to predict success in both college-level course work and the world of work.

          • It’s not a take, that’s what is behind the ACT’s design. There are previous tests in the series that also make correlations to national curricular stands and can be predictive for achievement…. the EXPLORE and the PLAN.

            The SAT correlates to nothing, other than itself.

          • “The SAT correlates to nothing, other than itself.”

            Your commercial for the ACT is unbecoming and unprofessional for a guidance counselor. I’m certain that 50% of the states that subscribe to the SAT aren’t as wrong as you wish they were.

          • Dear Bob,

            Please find data, anywhere…that illustrates where the SAT correlates to first year college progress…. I’d love to use it professionally. Oh.thanks for checking out my website. 🙂 I”m not in that field any longer, but glad you took a peek.

            The SAT works for some kids, the ACT works for some kids, and no test and no college works for others. No commercials here.

            Have a good day,

  4. The entire division should be ashamed of these results and yet they glibly rolled out their failure in progress without even a hint of contrition. It was an appalling display of obfuscation through data.

    This entire system is a disaster.

    What is the incentive for teachers to take on additional training when they are already under paid and over worked?

    Why should parents have their students enroll in IB courses when they only count as electives in college? Electives allow the college students to explore topics that are outside core curriculum and their major. IB elective replacement means little Johnny gets to replace those classes with IB Chemistry and then have to take Chemistry again in college.

    If the majority of students are “achieving” high grades and then pulling down 1, 2, and 3s on the IB tests shouldn’t this garner the majority of the attention on the real value of these “advanced” programs?

    A farce is a farce no matter how you spin it and this farce is spinning our kids futures down the tubes.

    • “James”,
      Really? You and I attended the same meeting, and heard the same discussion, and this was what you took away from it? Below, I have included your statements followed by my response. As always, I am more than happy to meet with and talk to anyone who has concerns about our schools. As a parent with 1 child in this system and 1who just graduated, I am more than familiar with both, our strengths and our weaknesses.

      James: “The entire division should be ashamed of these results and yet they glibly rolled out their failure in progress without even a hint of contrition. It was an appalling display of obfuscation through data.”

      ******** No one was “glib” at the work session. The undesirable results were presented in the name of openness to clearly demonstrate that we are open about our weaknesses and have a clear plan of action toward improvement by identifying weak areas, their causes, and solutions. It was most definitely NOT “obfuscation through data.” If obfuscation were the goal we would have shown our examples of success, of which there are many.*******

      James:”This entire system is a disaster.”

      ******** No, it is not. We definitely have a lot of work to do to be all we can be, but we have a great deal of good going on in our schools and offer our kids a lot of programs and options that help them to be successful. ********

      James:”What is the incentive for teachers to take on additional training when they are already under paid and over worked?”

      ******** I can definitely agree that teachers are underpaid and work many hours outside of those required in their contract. Teachers (and some other professions as well but teachers in particular) have an incredible dedication to what they do and to the students that they serve. Even those who some would not give the “teacher of the year award” to, tend to work beyond the call of duty, and they ALL take a great deal of grief for their efforts. Training is a benefit to the teachers and to the system, while they are not paid for their time, they are paid or reimbursed for the class and travel expense. I don’t know anybody who gets paid for attending classes outside of the workday.
      Paying teachers what they are worth would require people having to pay more taxes, which it seems these days, most are not willing to do.****

      James:”Why should parents have their students enroll in IB courses when they only count as electives in college? Electives allow the college students to explore topics that are outside core curriculum and their major. IB elective replacement means little Johnny gets to replace those classes with IB Chemistry and then have to take Chemistry again in college.”

      ******** We are a K-12 public school system; we are not here to provide college credit. I know some of the advanced classes, and the Dual Enrollment classes have been touted as sometimes being accepted as college credit at some schools, however that should not be the reason for taking them. If they get your student college credit that is the icing on the cake.
      A parent should encourage their child to take the most challenging classes they are capable of taking, which will cause them to be a smarter, more successful adult, and will help them get into college or get a better job. I don’t care if Johnny or Jane are going to be a plumber or an artist or the local dog catcher, they still will be better off the more they know and by learning to challenge themselves.
      You are correct that it is not a benefit to have the credit transfer as an elective. Of course you want to take your electives in college. But these classes DO help you GET INTO college. In most cases, a C in IB or AP is better than an A in a non-advanced class when it comes to being accepted into the school of your choice.*******

      James: “If the majority of students are “achieving” high grades and then pulling down 1, 2, and 3s on the IB tests shouldn’t this garner the majority of the attention on the real value of these “advanced” programs?”

      ******Again, what we need to do is look at the tests and determine what the students are missing. The reason (at least in part) that the class grade and the test grade are different is because the class grade encompasses an entire year’s worth of work and the IB grade is just the test grade at the end of the year.

      Again, I am always happy to hear from people who have concerns about our schools. Anyone who has called or emailed me in the past knows that I do respond and often we meet for coffee and talk. Face to face is always better, but email is fine too. My own children have had some problems from things like acceleration and what seems like not enough homework. I have had my own issues with the system that I have addressed with the people involved, past and present. Some of those things have been fixed and some are a work in progress because they take more time. The bigger stuff has more facets and is not tackled overnight. Particularly as times, expectations, and laws change.


  5. Boy oh boy,

    Blame teachers? There are many confounding factors for low test scores. Are ALL students taking these tests? Are they English as Second Language? Students with disabilities? What about students who are not college bound at all? The best and the brightest do have alternative paths that don’t involve college, so perhaps they aren’t even taking the tests in the first place. I don’t believe there are any four year universities with plumbing as a major.

    Having proctored many standardized exams…AP, SAT, and ACT some kids roll in the morning with no sleep. Some kids are actively working to improve one section score and could care less about the rest. The college or ROTC program you’ve applied to wants a higher math score? Then only work on the math section and Christmas tree the rest. And some kids drag themselves to the tests despite feeling awful and simply put their head down unable to make it.

    Oh…and lets not forget college and grade inflation. Being uber selective means students dropping out because of being unable to handle the curriculum is not good news to the colleges. So…that’s more “A”s than ever before.

    Get off your anonymous soap boxes and advocate for your own child instead of poking fingers at an entire system. I certainly do.

    Have a good day,

  6. The Clarke County Public Schools may not be perfect, but when you take one snapshot of time when there happens to be some opportunities in which the board, administrators, and teachers admittingly acknowleged at the meeting that a few of their strategies that may have led to some lower scores.

    I was also at the meeting and observed some of the best educators in this state defend themselves and their very deep rooted passion for education. It sounded like the sdchool system was already taking the needed steps towards making specific improvements to address the opportunitie/s that they have to improve upon.)

    As a product of the Clarke County Public Schools, I state that with such pride. There have been many changes over the past ten year, but one constant pillar that has always been a key to it’s many, many successes of the years is the commitment to raising the bar… higher and higher for our students.

    Let me be clear, I know what the The Clarke County Public Schools are all about… I know board members… Administrators… and a good number of what I believe are Clarke County’s most valuable assets… IT’S TEACHERS.

    JAMES… Your accusations of the school system being a disaster is a slap in the face of those teachers… AND the entire Clarke Clarke Community.

    You actually expect to now win an election for a seat on the school board????

    GOOD LUCK WITH THAT!! JUST IN CASE I FAILED TO MAKE THIS POINT CLEAR… Your statements on the comment thread do not help your case in any possible way convince voters to consider replacing A very competent Incumbent, Jennifer Welliver with you.


    Shaun Broy

    • Well Shaun, in your rush to show your Clarke County colors you have leaped to an erroneous conclusion.

      I am not running for school board.

      Your fear of honest analysis of the situation is not unusual and if you will notice, mine was a defense of teachers who are having this fiasco foisted upon them. Teachers are asked to take on added responsibility and use more of their time to train for and teach IB, AP and Bridge courses but do not see any more pay. In the real world more responsibility and pressure go hand-in-hand with raises, but not in this situation. Teachers work hard in this county and defending a failed approach to advanced classes does not help them do their jobs better.

      And let’s be clear the advanced placement program is a disaster. No one could look at the results and say otherwise with a straight face and no School Board would hold two work sessions to attempt to “fix” something if it wasn’t terribly broken. It is not, however a referendum on the entire school system. So you can take your little flag waving speech and put it back in your pocket for another time.

      I would suggest the next time you feel like jumping to conclusions as to someones identity online, exercise some sensible restraint and try not to smear someone just because of a first name.

      • Hal Jordan says:

        The program is not a disaster. However, I don’t think it’s been implemented in the best possible manner, either. The previous administration (the former super, and the last CCHS principal under that super) took a great idea and morphed it into something other than what it could have been – a solid option for those students who are truly cut out for such a rigorous program (IB). As for AP courses, having them, even a few, is good but – as with IB – if the money is not there for continuous professional development, especially when there is high staff turnover, then the program will stagnate and become less than it could…despite the best efforts of the teachers who teach those courses.

        Personally, I’m glad to see this dialogue begin.

  7. James,

    I respectfully retract my assumptions regarding you identity. You correct when lecturing me about jumping to conclusions.

    BUT… You still stated, “The entire system is a disaster.” How do you think that statement is viewed by our teachers? Enough said.



  8. Alayna Buckner says:

    I am very proud to have gone to Clarke County schools K-12. I had some truly wonderful, dedicated, challenging teachers and I personally benefited enormously from the IB program. Obviously public education has to do a lot of different things – especially in a county with only one high school – from preparing people to be good citizens in the community (i.e. attending public meetings and responding productively on comment boards like this), to vocational training, to college-prep, but I personally think our county’s commitment to actually providing higher standards is rare and something for us all to be proud of!

    As for the discussion of data, when I was in the IB program, our teachers had to write an expected score for us. i.e. Did she or he predict we were going to get a 5 or 6 or 7 on the English test or Math test, etc. (Tests were scored 1-7). I would be intrigued to know how far off CCHS teachers are on their estimates of these scores these days, as I remember my teachers being quite accurate when I took the exams.

    The article is not clear whether the instances of so-called “grade-inflation” are referring to this – poor estimates of the student’s final score — or whether a student who was predicted to get a 2 or 3 was still able to get an A in the class overall. ALSO: if it is simply referring to a few extended essays that had poorly predicted scores – and not to the classes themselves – I would think it is probably a very isolated problem that wouldn’t be TOO hard to fix. (Not to mention the sample size is probably tiny since you only have to write an extended essay if you’re going for the full diploma.)

    Personally, I would be much more concerned if our teachers are not able to predict their students likely outcomes on the tests in their actual IB classes and would investigate what is contributing to that problem.

    I would much less concerned if:
    (1) Not all students do well on IB tests. That’s just going to happen, no matter how excellent our teachers are. They are hard tests and in many other places you must qualify to become an IB student.
    (2) Students who did not do particularly well on the tests still managed to get an A or at least a B in the class overall. In fact, I would go as far as to say that this should not really be considered “grade-inflation”. Obviously, its a much longer conversation – but in general the tests themselves have a different function than your overall grade in the class. The tests are measuring: Do you know X, Y, Z and how well do you know it? Grades in general serve a much broader purpose (more aligned with the broader goals of public education): In addition to what exactly do you know, they tend to also encompass things like: you participating in class, are you doing your homework, are you putting in effort to learn? I don’t view it as a huge problem if the IB test scores don’t always align perfectly with students grades.

    So all this to say, if the IB teachers are anything like what I had when I was a student, and I know they are because some of them are still around! – I would think that they are very dedicated to providing a great public education to CC students, and that we should work with them to continue to improve the program.

    Alayna Buckner (Class of 2002, yay!)

  9. I grew up in the Boston area and spent my senior year at CCHS. Every student needs a compassionate and demanding teacher like Alice Loope. She was my CCHS English teacher in her 28th year of teaching. She had HIGH EXPECTATIONS for her students to articulate, read and write well. She told us that it was our RESPONSIBILITY to meet them, to earn a high school diploma. We wrote book reports and studied British Literature. She prerpared me for writing intensive courses at Western Washington University. . Goerge Bowman led field trips to add to his science lessons and Timothy Lee’s Psychology class helped me understand human behavoir.